Call of the Wild
by SARAH LABRIE
dir. David Michôd
David Michôd built his career on the mostly ignored genre of short films, which is probably why, until recently, not many people outside Australia knew who he was. This year he surprised everybody by taking the cinema world jury prize at Sundance with Animal Kingdom, his first full-length feature. Not unexpectedly, the film depends on all the things that make dramatic shorts work: relentless forward motion, an obsessive attention to detail, and characters so deeply rendered you want to duck when you see them coming.
Animal Kingdom opens with a boy watching Deal or No Deal on television next to the body of his dead mother. An indifferent camera flickers from the TV screen to the boy to the corpse. We understand little about the world we’re in, apart from the fact that it is empty of sentiment. The boy, Josh (James Frecheville), calls his grandmother to tell her absently that his mom has overdosed on heroin. "I’ll come right over," she says. The grandmother’s voice is the first pleasant note in this grim, washed-out universe and we think, for just a moment, that everything is going to work out fine. Together they will bury his mother and she will lead him out of his uncertain present. It doesn’t dawn until later that, as a reaction to the news of her only daughter’s death, her response is unsatisfactory. "OK." Josh answers, and then: "Do you remember where we live?"
Things might have turned out better for everyone if she didn’t. Josh’s new home turns out to be a wasps’ nest populated by his mother’s estranged brothers, the Codys: Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), whose twitchiness makes him seem always on the verge of accidentally murdering someone, the perpetually stoned Darren (Luke Ford), and the sociopathic Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). Together, their energy creates an atmosphere permanently on the edge of combustion.
At the heart of this chaos sits the grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), the family matriarch whose demands for affection and overlong kisses from her sons indicate that, somewhere along the way, her maternal instincts went awry. Her rouged cheeks and perfectly arched eyebrows give her the air of a faded film star, but her instincts are sharp and she acts on them with merciless precision.
Later, when she comes to see Josh as a threat to her sons, and consequently, her way of life, she will hunt him down with single-minded fury. Even then, her smile doesn’t crack. While on one level Michôd’s film is about testosterone unchecked, on a deeper, more important one it’s about what it means to be trapped in a family you didn’t choose.
It doesn’t help that seventeen-year-old Josh is a passive, lumbering man-child committed to never putting up a fight. Within days of his arrival, he has, at the request of his uncles, stolen a car and threatened a stranger with a loaded gun. If he’s troubled by any of this, he doesn’t let it show. It is a testament to Michôd’s direction, and to Frecheville’s acting, that we sympathize with Josh anyway. As he falls deeper and deeper into trouble, we feel a kind of desperate pity for him, if only because we know he would never feel it for himself.
At the other end of this spectrum is Mendelsohn's Pope. Something about his face lets you know right away that he is irreparably broken. His on screen presence makes you feel as though small creatures are burrowing their way beneath your skin. Where Josh is a walking blank, Pope is a mass of frenzied externalized id. Here is the best modern movie villain since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
Pope has a thorough understanding of the power of cruelty. He uses his own lack of a moral compass to manipulate his brothers and his nephew into a messy revenge plot against the local police. When two cops wind up dead and detectives come snooping, Pope grows convinced Josh will crack under questioning. The boy, he and Smurf decide, must be got rid of. As Josh takes to the streets with Pope on his trail, we begin to wonder if the film’s title is ironic. Though we’re treated to a monologue about the laws of the Melbourne jungle, Josh and Pope seem less like lions than lab rats, destined to complete the same mazes and die in the same cages their fathers were born in.
Until, that is, the last, delicious minute of the film, when Josh takes every crime Pope has committed against him and serves them back tenfold. This moment make the entire movie worth watching. It also underlines the point Michôd seems to be making, maybe in spite of himself. Animal Kingdom isn’t a gangster film. Or, it is, but it is also something else, a sort of warped bildungsroman.
Like the shorts Michôd made his name on, Animal Kingdom asks what happens when a child prematurely crosses the threshold between youth and dark, unwelcoming adulthood. In Crossbow the neglected son of narcissistic parents takes on the law with tremendous consequences. In I Love Sarah Jane, a little girl cares for a father who can’t return the favor because he is, literally, a zombie. The benign malice of flawed adults, and the damage it causes as their offspring grow up, drives much of Michôd’s work. Animal Kingdom takes on the same theme under the guise of a leather-jacketed neo-noir/thriller.
Before he was a director Michôd worked as a journalist, and it shows. Words matter in his shorts, which are mostly shaped like visual flash fiction. Likewise, there is a care given to language and silence in Animal Kingdom that viewers will notice because it is so rare. The scariest moments take place in between the shots of bloody carcasses and police squads, when Pope gazes longingly at the sleeping form of Josh’s girlfriend, or when Josh’s deadpan face cracks, for the first and only time, in a claustrophobic suburban bathroom.
But the elements that make this movie work are also sometimes its downfall. Michôd’s aesthetic- simultaneously stark and highly detailed- lends itself well to stories that go in one direction. When he takes on subplots and tangents, he loses us. Halfway through the film, after Josh gets taken under the wing of a sympathetic detective (Guy Pearce), a handful of events take place that don’t fit anywhere. Smurf collaborates with a corrupt lawyer to blackmail a cop into helping her organize a hit on Josh. Josh, meanwhile, is in a witness protection facility with people we’ve never seen before. Several police factions are suddenly involved. It’s as though we’ve been dropped into somebody else’s movie.
Animal Kingdom’s plot is ambitious, and threatens to be sprawling. Its strength lies in the perfectly formed characters who manage to hold the whole thing together. So when the cast grows to introduce people who pop in and out with no discernible function or meaning, Michôd undermines the subtle balance that makes the whole thing work. Nevertheless, we forgive him everything, since what he gets out of an Air Supply ballad layered over a long, skin-crawling stare is more than most living filmmakers can draw from 120 minutes of film.
I walked into this movie expecting something like last year’s A Prophet, a gritty French prison noir I found inaccessible but almost every boy I know adored. Instead, Michôd takes the tropes that define movies like that one and uses them to build a metaphor around the isolation that marks the end of adolescence, that bewildering experience of coming face to face with a reality whose rules no one ever explained.
"Hands" - The Ting Tings (mp3)
"That's Not My Name" - The Ting Tings (mp3)
"We Started Nothing" - The Ting Tings (mp3)